I was formally adopted at 2 years of age and told I was adopted when I was approximately 8. I kept asking why I was darker than everyone else, why were my features different. I felt peculiar and separate and the time came where my adoptive mom couldn’t keep it from me any longer. The fact she told me I was adopted never changed my profound sense of not belonging, no matter how much she told me she loved me. I felt every single dissonant nuance of connection and communication between those in the adoptive family and me and anyone who knew I was adopted. It was like a nightmare. It wasn’t made any easier by the abuse and my extreme emotional breaks (now diagnosed FASD). In every practical sense, I was deduced to a troubled child, a troubled teenager and a troubled adult.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, lemme tell ya. I’m sure we adoptees could all write a book! So when asked about the challenges of being adopted, without pause, it’s the expectations and the assumptions. You are expected to be grateful. You are expected to be happy about being adopted. “It was the best decision”. “Your biological parents did the right thing”. It is assumed your life is better, having been adopted. Adoptive parents are celebrated for their selflessness while biological parents meet both praise and discouragement. (Did I tell you, I’m also a birthmother of one child?) When you speak of the negative impact adoption has had on you, you are often bright sided, guilted, or told you are ungrateful.
If you are Indigenous, like me, adopted into a primarily white family, the identity issues are a beast. Granted, my adoptive mother was actually a distant biological auntie. Her father was Irish and her mother was Mandan and Hidatsa. Mom primarily grew up in her Native culture until she was taken from it as a young girl. Her Irish grandmother chose to house and teach her instead of being taken to an Indian boarding school. The problem with that was her grandmother did the same thing the school would have done. She made mom cut her hair and punished her for speaking her first language, Hidatsa. So, even though mom took great pride in her heritage, the trauma from her own forced assimilation carried a lot of untold weight. She tried her best to teach me some of our cultural ways. She taught me to bead, both on cloth and on the loom. She taught me how to forage for wild berries, how to garden, how to make frybread and Indian tacos, wojapi, cornballs. She sewed ribbon dresses for me and took me to powwows so I could learn how to dance. She had always played powwow music on tapes from the time I could remember until her last lucid days and I loved our peoples music. She taught me how to pray and use traditional medicines for praying. She wanted for me what was interrupted and taken from her as a child.
However, being raised in a primarily all white family, surrounded by all white neighbors, in all white schools, with all white history where all the heroes and greats were white, taught me more and more that it was not good to be Native. My features, complexion and name were made fun of by the white kids and adults. I grew to believe the European bone structure was the only attractive and acceptable look and thusly, grew to loathe my own. I tried to scrub my skin to look lighter, even though in the summer as a kid, the sun browned me more. I frequently had meltdowns as a kid and teenager because I couldn’t look less Native but I didn’t have the words for it all. So I just looked like a kid in a rage. When I lived on my reservation, I would then get teased for acting “too white” by other Native kids. So really, I could not find a common ground in either world. My adoptive sister and brother, who were a quarter Native, looked completely white and were told how attractive their Native features were. Mine were negated. Again, I wanted to look white. White would make life easier. It sounds like lunacy, but I assure you, it is an issue not talked about enough! And because of the self-loathing, I turned my back on what my mom had taught me. When we moved to Pennsylvania, I remember being asked what I was. I lied all the time and said I was Italian or Spanish or Mexican, Puerto Rican. Friends who would come to our apartment would soon find out from mom, I was actually Indigenous. So then I became a liar. I mean honestly, the lengths self-loathing takes a kid. Since my 20s I can say I have grown quite proud to be Indigenous and more recently, proud of my Indigenous features and name. But like I said, identity issues for a BIPoC child in a white adoptive family can be a beast.
It happens way more than adoptive parents care to admit. And I think that is solely because they don’t take the time to learn everything about their child’s culture before becoming parents to BIPoC children. They want to save them but not take accountability for their own roles in being poor parents. That really needs to stop if we want to break toxic cycles and create healthier children and safer environments. One of the things I would love to see for adoption is just that. Require all potential adoptive parents to take comprehensive educational history, social identity and racial bias classes so that they may understand on a deeper empathetic level, the delicacy and importance their child truly is. And in turn, so their child may grow to love themselves and others.